National Robotics Week: An Interview with the CEO of Ripcord

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Meet the Expert: Alex Fielding

Alex Fielding

Alex Fielding is the co-founder and CEO of Ripcord, a robotics company on a mission to take the world paperless. He began his career as an engineer for Cisco Systems and Apple, where he worked on multiple generations of macOS and PowerBook.

In 2001, Fielding co-founded Wheels of Zeus with Apple’s co-founder, Steve Wozniak; it was sold to Zontrak in 2006. Today, Fielding sits on the boards of the CodeWarrior Foundation and the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME) and is on the advisory board of Astra Space.

Using Robotics to Scale the World

“People expect that robots are going to be walking around with us and that they’re going to be serving us at a moment’s notice,” says Alex Fielding, CEO of Ripcord, a robotics company. “But the robots that I think are the coolest right now are the ones that are doing things quietly, the ones that we all see with our naked eye but we almost have a hard time acknowledging that that is what a robot really is.”

For half a century, robotics has been a major part of the manufacturing world, performing the sort of repetitive tasks which would otherwise place stress on the human body and mind. Today, robotics is also helping humanity solve issues of scale: how can you service a planet with a growing population?

“A lot of the questions around how you feed the population, how you grow the crops, how you make clean water, how you explore a galaxy, they all seem to come back to some form of automation,” Fielding says.

A Spotlight on Ripcord’s Mission

For Ripcord, the question is simple enough in premise, but massive in scale: how do you take an entire society paperless? And the answer, again, is a form of automation: Ripcord is using robotics to digitize humanity’s paper records.

Ripcord’s industrial machines find and remove fasteners from books and documents, and then scan text into the cloud. The scale of the mission is such that Ripcord is digitizing not only business files but also civil disobedience papers, Tibetan archives in Sanskrit, and entire physical libraries.

Ripcord isn’t done innovating, either: their work on non-optical radiation and imaging already allows their robots to read through 20 pages of a closed book without ever opening it; they’re aiming for 2,500 pages with that approach in the next few years.

“There are several robotics companies doing really interesting stuff that’s a huge benefit to society,” Fielding says. “Ten years from now, it’s going to be like the TV remote. You’ll look back and go, how did anyone ever survive without a TV remote? A lot of this technology becomes so ubiquitous that it’s obvious it has to exist.”

Fielding’s journey into robotics started at an early age. First, it was an Erector set. Then it was a soldering iron. Before long, he was in his first computer programming class, and he was hooked. His continued passion for robotics stems from a voracious curiosity and a steadfast belief in the imaginative power of play.

“In my home office, I have a laser cutter, a large format printer cutter, a 3D printer, a metal 3D printer, a vinyl cutter, an industrial embroidery machine, an industrial sewing machine, and a handful of vision sensors I’ve been playing around with that have terahertz emitters on them,” Fielding says, with a laugh. “And my job at Ripcord doesn’t even involve development anymore.”

Fielding knows that he’s unlikely to live long enough to see the completion of Ripcord’s mission to digitize the sum of human society’s paper legacy. But he’s convinced that if such a mission is to ever fully succeed, it will be through robotics, which benefits from its relationship to several exponentially evolving technologies like vision systems, sensors, mechatronics, and biomechatronics. Combined with a mix of passion and curiosity, the potential is seemingly limitless.

“There’s so much we still haven’t solved for,” Fielding says. “Do something that you feel is going to make a lasting impact on the world. Work on stuff that really matters to you. The rest of it is automatic.”

Five More Robotics Projects to Check Out

Da Vinci

First approved by the FDA in 2000, Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci Surgical System still looks like science fiction. The somewhat frightening-looking fourth-generation da Vinci has modular components and three to four robotic arms that can hold surgical instruments such as scalpels or scissors.

The system is controlled by a surgeon at a console; typically the console is physically close to the surgery system, but in theory, it could actually be quite far away. Twenty years after its approval, the da Vinci system is continuing to advance minimally invasive surgery across a wide spectrum of procedures.

Built Robotics

Self-driving taxis might capture a lot of the headlines, but the self-driving construction vehicles at Built Robotics are targeting the $1 trillion earthmoving industry. By upgrading existing heavy equipment with AI guidance systems, Built Robotics builds robots that build.

Automating portions of construction and renovation represents huge cost-savings: robots don’t need to be recharged as often as humans do. It’s also making things safer: despite operating in industries prone to bodily hazard and risk, Built Robotics has had over 10,000 hours of autonomous operations without a safety incident.

Astrobotic

Astrobotic is using robotics technology to pioneer affordable planetary access which could help usher in a new era of exploration, science, and tourism. Currently, their lunar landers and rovers are capable of delivering payloads to the Moon for both governments and individuals; in 2021, their Peregrine Lander will be the first American spacecraft to land on the Moon since the Apollo missions.

Astrobotic is also developing more advanced space robotics technology: terrain-relative navigation, mobile robotics for lunar surface operations, and reliable computing systems for mission-critical applications.

Canvas

The world needs to double its building stock by 2060, but 80 percent of contractors today have trouble finding skilled labor. Canvas, a construction robotics company, helps fill the gap by putting robots in the hands of skilled construction workers. Their novel approach has already reinvented drywall finishing, turning a variable process into an exact science. Canvas has worked on projects like San Francisco International Airport’s Terminal 1 and the UCSF Wayne and Gladys Valley Center for Vision.

Dishcraft

Some jobs you want the robots to take: commercial dishwashers have one of the highest turnover rates, with the average human quitting after just over a month, and 30 percent of dishwashing jobs going unfilled.

Dishcraft’s dish-cleaning robots, on the other hand, are more than happy to keep working. This is the dishwashing machine at scale, powered by AI and reimagined for maximum robotic efficiency. Dishcraft won the Visionary Award from Silicon Valley Robotics in 2020.

Resources for Robotics Engineers

Robotics is a collaborative and multidisciplinary field that relies on a community of curious scientific minds. Plug into the robotics conversation by checking out some of the resources below.

  • IEEE Robotics & Automation Society (IEEE-RAS): IEEE-RAS seeks to foster the development and facilitate the exchange of scientific and technical knowledge in robotics and automation that benefits its members, the profession, and humanity as a whole.
  • Robotics Education and Competition Foundation (REC): The REC Foundation’s mission is to increase student interest and involvement in STEM fields by engaging students in hands-on, affordable, and sustainable robotics engineering programs.
  • Robotics Industries Association (RIA): Founded in 1974, RIA is the only trade group in North America organized specifically to cater to the robotics industry. Member companies include leading robot manufacturers, users, component suppliers, research groups, and consulting firms.
  • Singularity University: A global learning and innovation community, Singularity University seeks to harness the power of exponential technologies to tackle the world’s biggest challenges and build a better future for all.

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